According to the Earth Policy Institute, in 1976, Americans drank an average or 1.6 gallons of bottled water a year. Assuming a 12 oz bottle, that would be 17 bottles a year. Today, Americans buy nearly a billion bottles of water every single week (51 billion bottles every year). That’s an average of more than three bottles per week for every man, woman, and child in the country or nearly 160 bottles a year. And this, even though that bottled water can cost from 240 to 10,000 times more than tap water, which is delivered right to the home for pennies a gallon.
Bottled water creates its own share of pollution. The production of plastic bottles consumes barrels of oil each year and transportation of bottled water from its source to retail stores releases thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And after all that water is gone, only a small percentage of these 51 billion empty bottles are recycled annually. The rest end up in landfills, or worse. Drinking two liters of tap water a day costs only 50 cents per year.
An unknown percentage of water bottles end up as litter along highways, in vacant fields, and in regular trash. Most water bottles used in the United States end up in landfills. As plastic bottles decay, they can leach harmful chemicals into the ground, potentially polluting the soil and water.
Only about 22% of plastic water bottles used in the United States are ever recycled. At the recycling facility, these bottles are sorted, placed on a conveyor, crushed and bundled for shipment. Specialized companies buy these bundles, chop them into flakes and sell the flakes to companies that produce recycled plastic goods. With a little effort, a lot more recycled plastic could be available as a raw material and extend the life of the oil that was used originally.
Some of the specialized companies make soft plastics needed for reusable shopping bags, tarps and other flexible products. Other companies make hard plastics used in automotive parts, plastic lumber for decking and park benches, railroad ties, furniture, more water bottles, or other household products. There also are companies that produce fibers –the flakes are melted into a liquid, spun into filaments as thin as hair, and used to produce wall coverings, fleece clothing, blankets, luggage, bags, carpets and rugs. A one-ton container of flake holds an estimated 20,000 processed water bottles – enough to create fiber to make about 500 T-shirts.
For those facing an emergency like hurricanes Katrina or Sandy, single serving water bottles can be a blessing in deed. But other options provide a better environmental choice for every day. Whatever option you choose for water supply, proper disposal of the container can and must be your choice for the environment and for future generations. Conserving our natural recourses is a responsibility for all of us.